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'My Hope Is Justice': Ex-Tim Hortons Worker Speaks from Mexico

Despite new reforms, foreign temps still face fears of deportation.

By David P. Ball 24 Jun 2014 | TheTyee.ca

David P. Ball is Vancouver-based staff reporter with The Tyee. Send him tips or comments by email, find him on Twitter @davidpball, or read his previous Tyee reporting here.

"My hope is that I'll see justice, truly," Edxon González Chein tells The Tyee over the phone from Mexico City. "Justice both within the program, and also regarding the companies that employ temporary foreign workers."

Two years ago, the 36-year-old former Tim Hortons worker in B.C. was forced to return to his home country after he and three other Mexican temporary workers complained about racism and abusive working conditions at the fast food giant's outlets in Dawson Creek.

The workers' human rights complaint foreshadowed a brewing controversy that has since gripped the country's political establishment, adding to concerns over hundreds of Chinese miners being brought to Tumbler Ridge, B.C. by HD Mining International -- first reported by The Tyee in early 2012.

On Friday, federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney unveiled his long-anticipated reforms to the temporary foreign worker program, partly lifting his nearly two-month moratorium on restaurants using the program. His reforms include phasing out low-income jobs being filled by non-Canadians, boosting enforcement, and publishing which corporations are permitted to hire TFWs.

In regions with more than six per cent unemployment figures, the new rules would also ban hotels, stores and restaurants from bringing in TFWs.

"The government took action today after two years of consultation with all parties involved, including unions, to reform the program and ensure that Canadians have first crack at the jobs available in Canada, as well as to deal with employers' misuse of the program," Kenney told the House of Commons on Friday. "We will make sure that there are consequences and penalties for employers who abuse the program."

The government's proposed fix was met with jeers from both employer groups, who said it would harm businesses, and the NDP opposition, who said the program should be abolished.

Missing in the response are voices like Edxon González Chein's, imported workers who toil in fear of being sent home if they raise concerns about job conditions or wages. For the next wave of TFWs, Kenney's reforms do nothing to change their second-tier rights status.

To address that imbalance, the BC Federation of Labour says what's needed is to grant the workers Canadian citizenship.

Short of that, González Chein suggested other changes to the program he thinks could lower the risk of abuse by employers -- and better inform would-be temporary workers about their rights and obligations once they're here.

"There should be information about the treatment you can expect when you come to Canada," he said. He also said part of the problem is the fact that TFWs must work exclusively for the employer that brought them here, adding to their vulnerability to abuse.

"It would be really helpful if there would be an open visa or work permit that would take away the exclusivity the employer has over you," he said. "An open visa or work permit would give you the option to look for another employer, to have a second job while you're in Canada."

Despite his 14 years of U.S. fast-food industry experience, including a stint managing a restaurant, before he came to B.C., González Chein told The Tyee he's been unable to find steady work in Mexico's struggling economy. "There are very few jobs," he says, "and even if you have a job, the pay is not good."

And though he remains bitter about the way he alleges he and his coworkers were treated by their boss while in B.C., he insisted it hasn't damaged his impression of Canadians as a whole. In fact, he misses living here.

"Of course, one of my expectation or hopes -- I don't know when -- is I'd like to come back one day," he says. "Not everybody I met was a bad person.

"I liked my experience with the people I met, I liked the place, many people I met treated me very well."

'Stinking albatross'

The Conservatives' reforms drew fire from New Democrat MPs as the House of Commons sat for its last debate before summer holidays.

Among the more colourful comments were from firebrand New Democrat politician Pat Martin.

"The Minister of Employment wears everything that is wrong with the temporary foreign worker program like some big stinking albatross around his neck," the Winnipeg Centre MP quipped. "Now, at the eleventh hour, he wants to put lipstick on a pig, not to mix metaphors, on the very day that we adjourn for the summer.

"He knows that not a single temporary foreign worker should be working in our country if there is a single qualified Canadian available for that work."

Kenney dismissed Martin's attack as "typical demagogy of the NDP," claiming New Democrat provincial leaders in fact supported his reforms.

"We are taking a tough but fair approach, a balanced approach that will crack down on abuse, will ensure that Canadians come first and that ensures this program operates only and always as a last and limited resort," he replied.

The business community was, however, unenthused about the new rules.

Garth Whyte, CEO of the 30,000-member business group Restaurants Canada, decried the changes, warning it's a "no-win situation" since it simply puts up "more barriers" instead of tackling the "systemic labour shortages" that plague the industry in today's economy "that make it hard to fill vacancies at all skill levels."

His criticism was joined the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which said it is "deeply troubled" by the reforms.

"In areas of the country where restaurant owners cannot find enough Canadian workers, there will be business casualties that will put Canadians out of a job," Whyte said in a statement Friday. "The significantly higher costs for restaurateurs will also force them to raise menu prices for customers. It's currently a no-win situation."

Humiliated, upset, deceived

But while the government seems to be talking tough towards low-wage fast food jobs going to foreign workers, the Tim Hortons case continues to slog through the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal without much progress.

Filed last May, the complaint alleges that the outlet's franchisee Tony Van Den Bosch hurled frequent insults at the temporary workers, made "derogatory and racist comments" about Mexicans, invaded their privacy in the overcrowded, "unsanitary" house he pressured them to rent from him, and did nothing when supervisors made fun of one Mexican worker's chemical burns from cleaning tables.

The allegations have not been proven.

"I felt humiliated and upset that they did this to me," González Chein told The Tyee. "I felt deceived, mainly because of the things they made me feel while I was working for them."

Now lawyers representing the four Mexicans, all sent back to their country, say the company is asking the tribunal to drop it from the complaint, and for months resisted a tribunal order to disclose its corporate operating manual -- which they allege would reveal the firm's role in local branch employment standards -- until agreeing to provide the manual earlier this month.

"At this point the process has become stalled," alleged Devyn Cousineau, a lawyer with the Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS) which is representing the complainants. "Tim Hortons has made an application to the Human Rights Tribunal asking that [the complaint against] it be dismissed."*

"Essentially, Tim Hortons is arguing that it has no responsibility for the working conditions of the workers -- in other words, that it's only the responsibility of the franchise owner anytime there's an allegation of discrimination or breaches of employment standards."

Tim Hortons declined an interview request about the case, or to confirm allegations the firm is trying to remove itself from the complaint. Cousineau said that the local operator "sold the franchise back to Tim Hortons on July 15, 2012," but CLAS argues they nonetheless bear responsibility for employment standards of their local operators.

Wake-up call?

In a May 1 email to The Tyee, a spokeswoman for Tim Hortons declined to comment on the Dawson Creek complaint, but confirmed the chain "recently terminated (its) relationship" with another franchisee facing complaints from temporary foreign workers in Fernie, B.C. and Blaimore, Alberta "who failed to comply with Employment Standards requirements, a matter we take very seriously," said Olga Petrycki.

"The Dawson Creek case referenced is currently in front of the Tribunal and as such, is not something we are prepared to speak to," she added.

Amidst the growing storm of controversy over not only Tim Hortons, but other chains including McDonald's and Wendy's, González Chein hopes his experiences will serve as a wake-up call to prevent others like him from being abused in the future.

He takes issue with comments like Pat Martin's that the program is allowing companies to "give away Canadian jobs." Foreign workers like himself aren't taking jobs away from Canadians, he argued, because there was an obvious need to fill vacancies here.

From his perspective, the problem is not that non-Canadians are working low-wage jobs in Canada, but that we lack of enforcement and penalties for employers who abuse the system.

*Story corrected June 25 at 10:50 a.m.  [Tyee]

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